Welcome to Memberful Design. This episode was originally recorded for our Dutch-language, podcast, Verwondering, and re-released here for our international audience.
This is an international edition of Memberful Design, recorded in English. Our guest is the Chinese-American author and curator Aric Chen. He’s the new general and artistic director of Het Nieuwe Instituut, that weirdly intriguing place for design and digital culture, with one of the largest architecture archives in the world.
As globalization brought us a climate crisis that we’re just now beginning to fully understand, we find ourselves with a globe that isn’t the borderless adventure land we once hoped it would be. In this episode, Chen shares his belief that manifestos are part of how we got into the mess that we're in. He shares his passionate plea for experimentation in design.
All images from this episode
Aric Chen and I recorded this episode at my study design studio Momkai in Amsterdam. Aric is the new General and Artistic Director of Het Nieuwe Instituut, The New Institute, that weirdly intriguing place for architecture, design, and digital culture based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Follow Aric’s journey on Instagram →
As a young teen, I visited Beijing in 1996. It gave me my first taste of life outside of Europe and a peek into a culture so vastly different than the one I grew up in. One thing was remarkably similar to my own upbringing: the streets were flooded with bicycles. In those days, a bicycle was one of the most popular products in China and was even considered a perfect wedding gift. The country was known as a bicycle kingdom and the vast majority used them to get around. Hordes of cyclists flowed like rivers through Chinese cities. This photo by Mark Tindale is from the same year and shows the streets of Beijing. Read more at The New York Times →
Het Nieuwe Instituut, The New Institute, is a cultural center in Rotterdam with a focus on architecture, design, and digital culture. The building is designed by Jo Coenen. In this artist's impression, you can see the temporary installation titled The Podium, as designed by architecture firm MVRDV. A giant neon-pink staircase across the exterior will lead to a platform on its roof. It’s set to open in June, in time for Rotterdam Architecture Month. Read more at Dezeen →
Aric grew up in Chicago with his Taiwanese mother. In California, he studied architecture and anthropology at Berkeley, followed by design history at Cooper Hewitt in New York. On a whim, he moved to China and by 2010, he was the creative director of the Beijing Design Week. For 7 years starting in 2012, he built a collection of visual culture from scratch for M+, a brand-new museum in Hong Kong. The photo is Virgile Simon Bertrand for Herzog & de Meuron, the architecture firm that designed the building →
Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen claims to be the first museum depot in the world to offer access to a complete collection, without the intervention of a curator. The building has been designed by MVRDV and opened in November 2021. It’s exactly the opposite of The New Institute. If you look closely, the institute’s building is reflected on the right in this artist's impression by MVRDV →
For the past 13 years, Aric lived happily in Shanghai and had no intention of leaving. What drew this explorer to a young institution that nevertheless has a long history; a story that he has admired for years? Besides listening to the episode, you can read more about his vision for the institute and the cultural organization’s future in Wallpaper. Photo by E. Roelsma →
Our guest was the lead curator for M+, the new museum about visual culture. For that museum, he acquired a beautifully designed sushi bar in Tokyo and moved it in its entirety to Hong Kong. It was designed in the 1980s by Shiro Kuramata. Photo by Lok Cheng →
Established in 2019, the Curatorial Lab at Tongji University in Shanghai examines the possibilities of curating in different contexts. From art malls to reverse curating. Aric has a fluid view of curating and its efforts to reposition narratives. Learn more in this talk in a Royal College of Arts lecture series at the School of Architecture →
Aric mentioned the Beijing and New York-based practice OPEN Architecture. They craft beautiful spaces such as this UCCA Dune Art Museum, outside the port city of Qinhuangdao in northern China. These ten inter-connected, cave-like galleries are a commitment to the site’s natural ecology. Photo by Iwan Baan. View more work by OPEN in their portfolio →
Open Architecture designed a 50-meter-high viewing tower in Yantai in the north east of China. This sort of giant sundial will act as a landmark in the city's new coastal district. View more at Gooood →
On globalism, Aric recently shared an intriguing article by András Szánto: “It’s easy to preach the virtues of globalism when borders are open. It requires courage and determination to keep contacts alive when there are risks involved…We cannot cancel our way out of this crisis.” Aric states that it is also easy to make demands of cultural institutions and practitioners when we are not the ones at risk. We need to be clearer about when to cut ties, and when to show solidarity. Photo by Adam Berry. Read more at Artnet →
As a director, Aric calls for the death of manifestos. He claims that manifestos are part of how we got into the mess that we're in. They are a distraction, he claims, resulting most frequently in empty platitudes at best and totalitarian visions at worst. Photo by Yoha Jin. Read more at Dezeen →
State of Extremes was an exhibition of design that probes the social, technological, and environmental crises that define our condition of extremes. Curated by Aric with Maya Dvash, Chief Curator of Design Museum Holon. It included over 70 works by international and Israeli designers and studios →
According to The New Institute, Zoöp is the title of an organizational model for cooperation between human and nonhuman life that safeguards the interests of all zoë (Greek for 'life'). The zoöp model makes the interests of nonhuman life part of organizational decision making. For news stories related to zoöps, HNI used images of Houtouwan, an abandoned fishing village reclaimed by nature on Shengshan Island, China. Photo by ChinaFotoPress. Read more on the site of HNI →
As the world's most admired garden designer, Piet Oudolf combines his observational skills with an unrelenting hunger to create. With parks that look good in bad light and plants that are equally beautiful in the winter season. You may know him as the creator of the High Line in New York or the Lurie Garden in Chicago, pictured above. Photo courtesy to Lurie Garden.
It was a true honor to welcome him as a guest on Verwondering. At 77, we discussed how he continues to grow as a designer. Join us as we take a walk together around his own extraordinary garden in Hummelo, the Netherlands (in Dutch) →
According to this interview in the newspaper NRC, ask the average Rotterdammer what he or she thinks of The New Institute and chances are you'll see a variation of shrugging your shoulders. Possibly followed by: that's where NAI used to be, the Architecture Institute, right? HNI is not visible enough, is the criticism. It is up to Aric as the new director to change this: "We want to become an institution for a broad audience.” Read the full interview (in Dutch) here →
Quartz, the news report on China’s latest annual government work, mentioned the phrase “little giants” for the first time. Also referred to as “specialized and sophisticated enterprises” (专精特新), “little giants” are smaller and often little-known businesses selected by the government because they have special products and know-how in strategic sectors like advanced manufacturing, energy, and critical minerals. Promoting this type of firm is the flip side of the regulatory crackdown on actual giants, large tech firms that Beijing wants to have greater control over. Above, lasers and LEDs light up the facades of skyscrapers in Shenzhen at the light show of the city that’s so close to Hong Kong. Photo by Masayuki Terazawa for Nikkei →
With all the attention on Ai Weiwei as an artist and an activist, you’d almost be made to believe that he’s China's only critical artist. In Western media, Ai Weiwei's activism is given extreme amounts of attention. Such an artist who continuously seeks confrontation with the government is a great story for many media, they simply can’t help to focus on this narrative. The picture above is from his book of photos while working in Beijing →
I.M. Pei died in 2019. As an architect, he was one of the greatest figures of 20th-century modernism. Known for works like the glass pyramid at the Louvre Museum in Paris or the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. As Aric stated, ‘he was an architect of subtle contradictions: famous yet under-recognized, pragmatic yet insistent, disciplined but not afraid of breaking the rules.’ Read Aric’s story at CNN →
As Artistic Director of the 2023 London Design Biennale, Het Nieuwe Instituut will propose a new curatorial framework. Keep an eye out on the website for the biennale for more news soon →
The OV-chipkaart was first introduced in the Rotterdam Metro in 2005. With this card, you have contactless access to all public transport in the Netherlands. On this website for ex-pats, you can read about seven ways you can level up your Dutch life with a personal OV chip card →
Aric and I in my study at Momkai. Verwondering is an eye-opening podcast about design, made for the community of Dutch creatives and entrepreneurs. In Dutch, Verwondering means Wonderment. We combine the show with a gallery. Since design begs to be seen, these visual essays accompany each episode. Previous guests and galleries can be viewed here →